Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Huckleberries in our Midst October 23, 2011

He looked like Huckleberry Hound, to be honest.  He was an unshaven character and his five o’clock shadow looked well past midnight, the loose skin of his jaws drooping and dangling. His clothes were shabby, shoes well-worn on the heels and in the toes; he always wore a ratty sports coat; in the winter his wraps made him look like a character from a Charles Dicken’s novel; and he had an unusual smell of mold.
I also knew this man from Church. He was a faithful mass-goer. In fact, he went to daily mass. As a young boy we began each school day with Mass and I had seen him for years at church. He would come into church, bless himself with the holy water, make his way down the aisle, genuflect, kneel and lean forward on the pew as if he was crawling into his heavenly Father’s lap and hugging him around the neck. His faith was visible. And when he came forward for communion, he always received communion on the tongue and returned to his pew and devoutly prayed, the intensity of his thanksgiving obvious. This man seemed to live his life as an alien among his fellow man.

He was also a regular customer at the Pancake Palace. He drove an old blue two-door 1967 Chrysler that was rusty along the fenders and underside; the tires were underinflated and the left turn signal was always on, eternally stuck and it blinked red wherever he went, even if he was going straight or turning right. You could see him coming down the street, he leaned to the left in his driver’s seat and he never broke 20 miles per hour; traffic behind him was bumper to bumper as he cruised into the Pancake Palace parking lot. With his eternal left turn signal on, it was a good thing he always turned left into the parking lot. He’d creep through the parking lot and usually park in the last parking slot on the south side of the building.
He smoked a cigar most of the time when he came into the restaurant. He always sat on the last stool at the counter. He ordered decaf coffee and then usually ordered the blue plate special of the day. He didn’t bother anyone and made no nuisance.  However, I never knew his name. We just called him Huckleberry Hound. He would speak to me as I was sweeping the floor or cleaning a table or washing the windows, and let me know I was doing a good job, but that was about it. That and his usual nod with the words, “God bless.”

In today’s first reading from Exodus, God is clear that we “shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt…. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you do wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cries.” I know there are times when I just feel like this world is such an alien place and not my true home. And I know that still, today, we are all aliens here, for our true homeland is in heaven.
But aside from spiritual alienation, many of our ancestors were aliens in the U.S., weren’t they? Mine were. We can think of the tens of thousands of Irish, German, Italian immigrants who came here in the 1840s through the 1900s. America would not be such a great nation if they had been rejected or turned away then.

So whatever became of Huckleberry Hound? Well, it turns out that he was the son of German immigrants who had come to the states in the late 1800s. But he was very eccentric and chose to live very simply, perhaps so affected by the depression era that he lived with a very conservative view of money and the like. He certainly did not put on airs — or deodorant.
What we do know is that when he died at the age of 90 in the late 1980s, much to the surprise of many in town, he was identified as an entrepreneur of the prominent business and it was revealed that he was a millionaire. He was a widower and had no children. In his will he left a lot of money to charitable organizations and he left at large sum of money to the Church.

I was an altar server when he died. I recall his funeral. There were very few people who came. But I was glad I was there. And I have never forgotten him or what he taught me: never judge by appearances.
This man was the face of God obscured by his unshaven face and smelly coat. Yet he was an alien in our midst, a man with a story that was unfortunately never heard—at least until now. He died alone and was buried in the shadows of the cemetery, although he was a faithful Catholic who no doubt had heard the gospel and tried to live it in the best way he could everyday of his life.

I never heard him judge another human being; he loved God with his whole heart and soul, and his final act of gifting the church was so that others might know the love of God that he had known.
And even though others may not have loved him, let alone even known him, he was loved by God.

And so are you.

May we learn to give as generously as did this little man who looked like Huckleberry Hound.

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